LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Frustrated over efforts to rework the finances of the KFC Yum! Center, University of Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich suggested over the weekend that the school consider leaving the downtown arena.

Arena and city officials have insisted that U of L must renegotiate its lease at the Yum! Center as part of sweeping changes meant to help the Louisville Arena Authority meet rising debt payments on construction bonds. The lease expires in 2044.

Jurich, in an interview Saturday morning on WLOU 1350’s “D&D Spill the Tea,” questioned whether the university’s basketball teams are the right tenant at the arena.

“I don’t think we’re wanted down there, so I think we should” pull out of the Yum! Center, he told the program’s co-hosts, former Louisville Metro Council member Denise Bentley and attorney Dawn Elliott.

The arena authority estimates it won’t be able to make its bond payments by 2020. In a bid to strengthen its financial position, the authority is seeking changes to a tax increment financing district near the Yum! Center, a Metro Council ordinance locking in $240 million in city payments and a new lease with U of L that provides more money for debt costs.

Some council members and state lawmakers have seized on the lease in recent months, saying it gives U of L an unfair portion of arena revenues. Last week, after a debate that included some criticism of the university’s lease, the Metro Council’s budget committee delayed acting on an ordinance on city funding for the Yum! Center.

U of L officials have declined to speak publicly in detail about changes to the arena deal. But during his appearance on WLOU, Jurich said: “We’ll be a team player, and we said we’d help in any problems that they have there. But I don’t want to be the only one that helps.”

But he also reminded the hosts that the university preferred an on-campus arena to replace Freedom Hall, where it played until 2010. U of L ultimately agreed to move to the Yum! Center at the behest of state and city officials who backed a downtown arena.

Jurich also defended the university lease at the Yum! Center.

“We had to sell the arena, we had to sell it out, we had to sell the suites, we had to sell the club suites, we had to sell the signage – we took all the risk in that arena,” Jurich said. “So now, all of a sudden we become the bad guy because we actually did all those things.”

Jurich was not available for comment. But athletics department spokesman Kenny Klein said in a statement that Jurich is “upset because we have done our part, but also said in that radio interview that he would work with the governor to help.” (Gov. Matt Bevin has suggested the U of L lease needs to be changed.)

“The university has exceeded projected expectations placed upon it through the pro forma used to determine the funding for the arena,” Klein said. “We have worked with closely with the arena management to clear multiple dates for other events during basketball season.  We have an agreement in place with the arena authority that was negotiated in good faith and was discussed and approved in open meetings.”

Asked to respond to Jurich’s comments, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer issued a statement that said, “The city, state and UL share a desire to have a financially successful YUM Center and are working toward that goal.” Chris Poynter, a Fischer spokesman, declined to elaborate.

Scott C. Cox, the arena authority chairman appointed by Bevin, said in an interview that he understands Jurich’s frustrations.

“We’re close to having an agreement,” Cox said. “I think he accurately views the criticism against him and the university as being unfair – and he’s absolutely right about that.”

Cox said U of L doesn’t have to reopen its contract to use the Yum! Center and noted that the arena authority has asked Jurich to renegotiate. He said he has met “many, many times” with Jurich and U of L officials.   

At the same time, Cox said the Metro Council is doing its due diligence in reviewing the arena ordinance, which could be taken up again at a budget committee meeting on Friday.

“We’re going to work this out,” he said. “We’re going to have a resolution to this.”

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Eric Crawford contributed to this story.

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